Don’t start with why

Once upon a time, life didn’t change much. We all had a bit more control. We could set a goal in our lives or work, and draw a straight-line action plan to get there. This approach is a bit like making a movie: decide on the plot, write the script, hire the actors, and produce. Ta-dah! A nice linear process, like an assembly line.

Of course life no longer works like this. Maybe it never did. This linear approach helped us be a bit more efficient, but it doesn’t satisfactorily deal with the messiness of reality; the constant change; the fact that there are far more interesting opportunities than we have time to chase, with new ones are emerging all the time. How do we focus?

Instead of imposing even tighter controls, let’s play with a different analogy: improv theater. Here we choose the cast, but we don’t choose the plot and neither do the actors. The actors call out to the audience to provide constraints: Tell us a character! A place! A time period! And within these constraints provided by the audience, the show can begin. The plot emerges within the bounds of an intention.

This is the power of both/and, not either/or. It’s both intentional and emergent; top down and bottom up, planned yet agile. The path becomes clear through iteration and experimentation.

how is intent best defined?

In our default mode, we choose a “what” to aim for. What do we want to do, make, accomplish? But in an uncertain world, the what is constantly changing. Focusing on a what is a bit like the movie analogy; we’ve narrowed in a bit too much on scripting the details instead of holding space for a variety of whats to emerge.

Simon Sinek says we should start with why instead of what, because why — a sense of purpose – provides a way of orienting ourselves towards what doesn’t change. But what happens when your why and my why aren’t the same? In a business context, what if our collective why doesn’t resonate with customers and partners? Focusing on why risks being rather self-centric — what’s important to me instead of we.

While I can’t fault the logic behind why, I prefer to start with who. Who is in our unique ecosystem — including myself — and what do we all care most about? Or… back to our movie analogy, there’s not much of a plot without the who. The main characters provide the storyline; the richness and emotional depth of the actors is what makes a film (or improv) a flop or a hit.

WHO defines the WHAT and the WHY

Who defines the what and the why. It makes sense that I’d focus here given my background in human-centric strategy and transformation. But I see now one critical ingredient that I’d missed in all my heady analysis; I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s explore the power of who.

What holds it all together?

What’s the one thing that doesn’t change? Is there such a thing? Yes… it’s our human nature: Our 12 core human needs, and how we feel when those needs are met. It’s this unchanging part of who that ensures Romeo and Juliet is still relevant 5 centuries after it was penned by Shakespeare. It’s this deep, felt experience of love or safety or freedom or creativity or belonging (etc etc) that serves as the glue (the intent) for the some of the most complex businesses on the planet.. and yes, it works magically in our personal lives as well.

I dare you to name a single wildly successful brand that doesn’t tap into one core human need or emotion. They all do. Amazon, Netflix, Uber, etc. = control (I want what I want, when I want it.) Virgin = autonomy and freedom. The largest incumbent in every category = security (“no one got fired for buying IBM.”) Apple = control + creativity. AirBnB = belonging and diversity. The list goes on. The best ones pull even more meaning and purpose (why) into this emotional container, along with more who… the sense of shared identity (rebels, creators, helpers, hosts, etc.). This focus on a Who — a tribe with shared needs and values — allows brands like Apple and Virgin to extend far beyond their original what into other categories, magnetizing customers, employees and partners along the way, without losing their essence.

We’re like plants stretching towards the sunlight, seeking the emotional nourishment that we need to grow. And the reverse is true: we move away from what we don’t want to feel: unvalued, unsafe, trapped, disconnected. Research reveals that “emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making,” not only in psychology but also in consumer behavior.

Who’s the most important who?

Pre-sabbatical, I assumed the most important who in a business context is the customer; they pay the bills, after all. So I’d lay out this elegant strategy on how to orchestrate a complex global enterprise around a need or emotion that was most predictive of business outcomes, and I’d hear, “but we don’t have a Steve Jobs.” I’d reply, “You don’t need one. Simply replicate what he and others did. Here’s the recipe.” As if it were that simple.

I was wrong.

The most impactful leaders in the world magnetize global ecosystems because of who they are, not what they do. They know themselves deeply and unapologetically. They’ve doubled down on their strengths. And because they listen to their own inner wisdom, they can hear and have empathy for others. They stand on what I call the “ground of power”… the source of authenticity and individuality that allows them to balance security with flow, stability with freedom. Intent + improv… both/and. As within, so without.

This type of leader also understands the power of coherence. Coherent light is a laser that can cut through steel, while diffuse light is powerless. Coherence that harnesses the power of empathy and emotion? Unstoppable. And this requires a different way of seeing the world: connections, not compartments. Similarities, not differences.

Leaders or entrepreneurs who truly know themselves will naturally create coherence within their teams, partners and customers. A metaphorical casting call, likeminded people are drawn to their visions and identities. This doesn’t negate diversity, by the way; a mindset or emotion (what I call “motivational DNA”) serves as the golden thread that weaves through a host of differences and thinking styles.

When leaders, teams, employees, customers and partners are drawn by the same motivating force, it’s as if an ecosystem emerges from nothing. The power of attraction is activated.

How to harness WHO

Perhaps you’d like to start a business but are unsure where to begin… or you want to take your business to the next level. Or, heck, you simply want clarity in your own life… to be able to make forward progress when your what isn’t clear. My suggestion is to start with who.

  • Know thyself as a leader. Embrace your entire identity and what makes you unique. What core needs have motivated your decisions in the past? How are you wired? How do you want to feel in your life and work?
  • Know thy team. If I’m primarily motivated by freedom and you’re primarily motivated by security, we’re going to run into some fundamental sticking points: our motivational DNA isn’t complementary. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together; this is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate what freedom and security bring to the party and find the middle ground. But it could also be true that one of us is in the wrong place.
  • Know thy customer. This is the person who is responsible for paying the bills, yet too often they’re left out of the culture conversation. What will magnetize them to your brand? How do they want to feel, and how does that inform your business model, offerings, extended partnerships and, yes, internal culture?

Now it’s time to find the golden thread. In the midst of diversity, you’ll find similarity… and it’s the similarity that unifies us. That encourages to bring our whole selves to work. That breaks down silos and helps us all grow together.

The similarity provides the Intent: the stage for the improv (or to use geeky terms, the platform for the ecosystem). Now all the actors can play, experiment, and be agile without being at odds with one another. “You understand me; I belong with you” is what prospective employees and customers think as they are drawn like iron to the magnet that is our shared humanity.

Learn more

I’m a rebel with a cause who’s helping other “rebels with causes” create more freedom and impact in their lives and work (a tangible example of what I just wrote!) I’m no longer doing strategy, but I can advise, review your strategy and make suggestions, assess the motivational DNA for you and your teams, facilitate a workshop, or guide you in a 1:1 journey to gain clarity on your who, why and what (in other words, what I offer can easily evolve around the who). Learn more here.

VIDEO: The back story for Intent+Improv

I’m on my soapbox! If you’re interested in personal transformation, I talk about the transitions… how we can bring a key innovation process from the business world into our personal growth. If you’d like to jump to the most relevant spot:
:42: overview of divergence and convergence
2:14: overview of Kegan’s evolution of the self
5:19: mash-up of the two models
9:20: Intent+Improv: the dance between convergence and divergence
10:49: applied to business strategy
11:45: applied to personal growth

Does this resonate for you? As I work to crystalize my thinking, I’d really love to know what clicks and what might need clarifying. Thanks tribe!

Shifting emotional perspective: doing the inner work

While I’m writing this within the context of racism in America, this model can be used for getting unstuck emotionally in any context.

The world is burning. Within the tinderbox of hundreds of thousands dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed (both disproportionally affecting black communities,) the recent unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked a revolution.

As a white woman who writes and advocates for freedom, I’ve been trying to navigate my own way through this complex and charged topic. I can no longer justify sitting on the sidelines saying that it’s not my fight. This is not a black issue: it’s a human issue, and it’s essential that we all try to understand each other’s realities so that we can co-create a better future for us all.

With that in mind, I’d like to share my inner-world journey over the past week. I created this “emotional perspective shift” model to understand my own stages of transcending inner resistance; I’m now seeing it as a useful model for explaining and navigating the combativeness on social media. It can be used for any inner work, including creating more human-centered organizations. I’d love your thoughts and reactions.

Aversion

It’s human nature to hang out on the left side of this curve; we may or may not be aware of our inner resistance. I’m seeing a lot of business as usual, as if we can just blank-out what’s happening with a wish. I sat comfortably in aversion for years. Not in defensiveness, but rather in the blank-out that feels like indifference. “What’s happening doesn’t affect my life.” I wondered why I didn’t care more; the guilt came from the feeling that I should feel something — anything — and I didn’t. The easiest option is to do nothing; to stay in my head, unfeeling.

To the topic at hand, I’m seeing a lot of irrelevant comments like “It’s not my fault.” “I shouldn’t be guilty because I’m white.” “It’s not my issue.” “I’m not to blame.” “Not all white people are bad.” These comments are defensive barriers against the Discomfort stage of the curve. They’re flags that signal an aversion or indifference to our own inner worlds.

Moving directly from Aversion to Action is the cause of the distrust and conflict today.

When we’re defensive or angry and then act from that place, it triggers the same feeling on the receiving end, setting up the us-versus-them dynamic. We throw rocks at each other across the chasm, allowing ourselves to feel righteous or defensive or angry… and NOT allowing ourselves to hold and heal our underlying fear, hurt, shame or pain. Until we can drop into the discomfort of the primary emotion — the stuff we’ve learned to avoid — we’ll keep circling around in the same unhealthy patterns and creating divisions in our outer worlds.

But the magic happens when we choose to drop down into the curve… or we’re forced down when it becomes personal. Your white daughter marries a black man or woman; a close friend comes out as gay; you run a business that employs or serves a group of humans affected by injustice. Or maybe, like me, you start questioning your values and wonder why you’re not fully living them.

Discomfort

Our Western society is built for comfort: we love our TVs, cell phones, fast-fashion, comfy homes, routines, alcohol and food that numb us into a predictable existence. It’s safe here; safe and stagnant. There’s no growth without emotional discomfort.

So many of us have retreated into the relative comfort of our brains to avoid feeling fear, anxiety, “not good enough,” and a host of other emotional pains in our bodies. The only way to make it to the other side of the curve, where we’re free to shape our outer world in full alignment with our values, is by taking this step into discomfort.

Freedom is found on the other side of discomfort.

I knew that to truly understand this issue of Black Lives Matter, I needed to have conversations with people of color. Yet it wasn’t until I sat down at the keyboard to message five acquaintances that I was flooded with discomfort: the fear of “I’m not going to do this right.” The guilt of “I’m too late to be reaching out.” The sense of inadequacy when I tried to find the right words to say. You can read more about my experience here.

In the face of discomfort we either retreat to the perceived safety of Aversion or drop down into Acceptance.

Acceptance

It’s important to note that our aversion is never about the outer-world situation, but rather our own inner-world responses. By accepting discomfort, we are accepting ourselves and our own lived experience, acknowledging it instead of hiding or numbing.

“Accepting what is” without clinging or pushing away is a core tenet of Buddhist practice that I have found to be enormously helpful in my own personal growth. I’ve discovered that the moment I accept what is, the tension disperses. Another way of stating this is, “If you can name it you can tame it.” Naming what we’re feeling is powerful stuff.

If you can name it, you can tame it.

Dr. Dan Siegel

So as I readied myself to initiate these conversations with people of color who I didn’t know very well, I started naming my uncomfortable feelings. Ah… hello, Shame. Hello Fear. Hello, Icky-Feeling-In-My-Stomach. Welcome to the party! You can do whatever you want, come and go as you please, but I’m not going to entertain you; I have better things to do.

Acceptance allows us to develop mastery with our emotions without judgment. We can’t honor someone else’s pain until we’ve honored our own. We can’t truly hear someone else until pay attention with kindness to what wants to be heard and acknowledged within ourselves.

Forgiveness

Acceptance and Forgiveness are found in the darkest bottom of the curve. Our brains and sight are useless here; this is the messy alchemy of heart and soul. It’s not enough to accept; the next step is to forgive myself and others. The opposite of Freedom is Judgment: your inner self-talk will reveal if you have work to do at this stage.

The opposite of Freedom is Judgment: your inner self-talk will reveal if you have work to do at this stage.

If I don’t forgive myself for my past lack of action, I’ll retreat back up into Aversion. If I don’t forgive my parents for not teaching me emotional mastery because their parents didn’t teach them (and on and on through the generations), I’ll retreat back up into Aversion. If I don’t forgive my lack of education on this issue, I’ll retreat back up into Aversion.

Acceptance and Forgiveness are how we release the inner constraints that prevent our own sense of freedom. How can I honor the freedom of another human being when I’m trapped in a box of my own making?

How can I forgive us all for failing to live up to expectations that were set by the toxic yet popular ideas that “we can be anything we want” and “weaknesses are opportunities?” These ideas negate individuality and differences, encouraging us to all conform to some imaginary ideal of perfection and demand others to do the same. I need to recognize the ways that I’ve hidden my differences in shame and forgive myself, so that I can forgive the differences of others… even (and especially) if they’re only skin deep.

As I sat at my keyboard, I wasn’t conscious of going through this stage. But I can see now that I forgave myself: not fully in that moment, but enough to move to…

Optimism

Action is not possible without optimism. At some level, we have to believe that our action will make a difference. It’s easy to believe that my small action, my vote, my $5 or my message won’t be enough; what can one person do in the face of such embedded, institutionalized injustice? But it does matter. You matter. We’re all connected and interdependent.

As I sat at my keyboard, I decided that even if I reach out unskillfully, I could make a difference if I did so honestly: honest with myself and with the other person about my intentions. That doing anything was better than retreating back into Aversion and complacency. And so I moved into…

Action

I fumbled through my message and hit send. I repeated this five times, each time allowing my discomfort to trip me up and change the message slightly. I stopped writing from the heart; my words stopped being truly honest. I started explaining myself, instead of simply inquiring how they were. Because explaining from the head in a state of aversion felt safer than my vulnerable and raw honesty with myself about my own uncomfortable emotions.

This idea of self-honesty in words and actions is so crucial. My first and most honest message was well received. The next message, coming from my head instead of my heart, was not.

The brain divides; the heart unites. As I move through this curve over and over, getting better with practice, I’m learning that I am paradoxically safer in vulnerability. All the battles and debates in social media are between head-centered humans living in Aversion, communicating blindly without the honest awareness of their own hopes and fears and pain.

At the level of the heart — in the darkness at the bottom of the curve, which is also where love and joy can be found — is our shared humanity. When we’re real with ourselves and with each other, this is when bridges are built… when we can come together and create something beautiful.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

What do you think and feel about this emotional perspective shift, dear reader? How can you use this model within yourself, or within your organization, to get comfortable with discomfort and take the action so needed today?